Pulitzer’s Magazine?

Our founder reflects on CJR's roots

Here is the best and here is the worst story of the day. . . . Here is the wrong of the day; here is the injustice that needs to be righted; here is the best editorial; here is a brilliant paragraph; here is a bit of sentimental trash; here is a superb ‘beat’; here is a scandalous ‘fake,’ for which the perpetrator ought to go to Sing Sing; here is a grossly inaccurate and misleading headline; here is an example of crass ignorance of foreign politics; here is something ‘crammed’ from an almanac by a man who does not know the meaning of figures when he sees them. —Joseph Pulitzer, on how to evaluate newspapers, in “The College of Journalism,” The North American Review, May 1904.

In 1960, the faculty of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism found itself talking about putting out a magazine. Many of its members, perhaps all, were hesitant—not just because it was to be a magazine but because it was to be a magazine devoted to criticizing journalism. By and large, journalism schools and journalism professors did not criticize journalism. Indeed, Columbia’s longtime dean, Carl W. Ackerman, had devoted himself to just the opposite—defending the press, even, for example, joining the American Newspaper Publishers Association in opposing legislation to get newspapers to pay a minimum wage.

A new dean, Edward W. Barrett, had taken charge in 1956. A former State Department official and Newsweek editor, he was also, of all things, a dropout from the journalism school’s class of 1933. He soon woke up the school from a long period of stasis, adding new programs, hiring new professors as the budget allowed, and seeing to it that the school got a lot of favorable publicity. He also began to use his speaking dates and periodic reports to assess and even disparage American journalism for shallowness, triviality, and stodginess.

At the time, I was doing odd jobs as Barrett’s assistant, and I noted the healthy reaction to his sallies: considerable praise, a little grumbling. I realized that there was a modicum of press criticism already available, but scattered and sporadic. We could feast on “The Wayward Press” of A. J. Liebling in The New Yorker, of course, and could listen to the critiques on cbs outlets started by the tragically short-lived Don Hollenbeck. There also was Nieman Reports, from the mid-career program at Harvard, and a new media section in the Saturday Review. But there was no nexus, a continuing intake for a flow of criticism from varied sources. I sent the dean a memo proposing something called the “Columbia University Journalism Review.”

The proposal might well have died on the desk of a more cautious dean, but Ed Barrett was adventurous, and saw a glimmer of a way to perform a service for American journalism (whether American journalism liked it or not) and at the same time to add a new dimension to the school of journalism. We soon had the faculty—in those days, a mere handful—chewing on the possibilities and dangers. In summing up, the secretary, Richard T. Baker, proposed a somewhat kind, gentle publication, a friendly voice that might seduce the press into virtue. Maybe not exactly what the dean and I had in mind, but there was consensus enough at least to permit us (even underexperienced as I was, I was designated acting managing editor) to start assembling a trial issue and a staff that was at first minuscule, tiny enough to fit in a former darkroom.

It would be retro-mythologizing if I said we even thought about whether this step would be consistent with the founding vision of the school of journalism. In 1960, the school was forty-eight years old. It had opened in the fall of 1912 under the mandate of an unusual charter—a 1904 essay by the publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who had died in 1911, setting out in detail his vision for the school he had endowed—as a new kind of institution that would not only train but educate students as journalists, to make them not only skillful but thoughtful, ready to play a greater part in the functioning of American democracy and the preservation of the republic.

Much like its author, the essay was masterly but impossible. In the school’s early years, a strenuous effort to follow Pulitzer’s dicta exhausted both faculty and students (there was even a brief strike), and the Pulitzer vision began to give way to budgetary and human realities. The school—and the university—reined in the program. Its scope diminished, settling after two decades into a compact single-year graduate curriculum, tailored to the demands of the Great Depression, aimed less at a broad education—a task to be left to undergraduate institutions—than at giving students skills that would make them immediately employable. As this plan played out, it meant the admission of no more literary types and very few women. As for Pulitzer, he was rarely mentioned beyond obligatory references in the school’s catalog. His name was neither on the school nor on its building, which remained just plain “Journalism.”

Such was the dim status of the founder of the school that once celebrated his birthday annually. By 1960, when we set off to create the Columbia Journalism Review, so far were our minds from Pulitzer that the magazine’s opening policy statement failed to mention him. Nor did we give much thought to the possibility that we might be imposing a substantial burden, lasting for decades, on the school that he founded. The unasked question was: Would the Columbia Journalism Review be an enterprise consistent with the founding goals of the institution? Unasked, it was unanswered.

Perhaps now, when CJR is—incredibly to me—publishing its fiftieth-anniversary issue, and as the school approaches its centennial, we can look at the matter more closely.

The prima facie case is easy to make. Pulitzer’s 1904 essay, “The College of Journalism,” abounds in references to criticism, evaluation, or improvement of journalism, albeit in a classroom context, rather than in a magazine. The
quotation at the start of this essay is the most extended, but there are others:

Every issue of a newspaper represents a battle—a battle for excellence. When the editor reads it and compares it with its rivals he knows that he has scored a victory or suffered a defeat. Might not the study of the most notable of these battles of the press be useful to the student of journalism as is the study of military battles to the student of war?

As yet the journalist works alone. . . . But if the future editors of the city had . . . a recognized professional meeting place in which they could come together informally and discuss matters of common interest, would they not eventually develop a professional pride that would enable them to work in concert for the public good? . . . Such a spirit would be the surest guaranty against the control of the press by powerful financial interests—not an imaginary danger by any means.

By far the largest part of the American press is honest, although partisan. It means to do right; it would like to know how. To strengthen the resolution and give its wisdom the indispensable basis of knowledge and independence is the object of training on journalism.

And there are more. Pulitzer made clear that he not only would allow but would advocate frank discussion of the press. The only means he specified for recognizing merit was his provision for the Pulitzer Prizes, which are still administered out of the journalism school. But almost all of the rest of the evaluation he had advocated had all but vanished with the shrinking of the curriculum. The Columbia Journalism Review can be said to have filled that vacuum.

Can be said, indeed; but has it? In recent years, Dean Nicholas Lemann has refocused the school on the Pulitzer ideals. So it is more than an abstract question to ask whether the Review has helped carry out Pulitzer’s vision.

Many of the dozens, perhaps even the few hundreds, of people who have been associated with the Review can confirm that the Review’s relations with its parent institution have not always been smooth. The seven deans who have served in the life of the Review have had to be conscious of the substantial resources that must go into sustaining even a small magazine, as the Review has been and remains. At least one dean feared that stories in the Review were reducing financial support for the school; another dropped hints that the ax was at hand. And it is hard not to believe that any dean did not think, at least momentarily, how much simpler life might be without CJR.

Still, over five decades the institution’s support for the Review has been strong. The first year or two would have been impossible without a line of credit extended to the Review by Columbia’s president, Grayson Kirk, before his time of troubles. Deans labored to keep a flow of financial support coming to the magazine, which was destined rarely, until recent years, to break even. Ed Barrett in particular continued to seek backing for the Review even after he stepped down from the deanship, while he served a decade as publisher. But many others have scrambled to gain for the magazine the support it now receives, advertising and circulation revenue having fallen well short of sufficiency.

By my count, the Review has had ten editors (counting my own two terms as two people), an average tenure of five years. The incumbent, Mike Hoyt, has outlasted us all. The round figure fails to suggest the turbulence that has frequently enveloped the position. My successor, Al Balk, found the school and its faculty so little to his liking that he proposed severing the magazine’s ties with Columbia. His successor, Ken Pierce—encouraged by Fred Friendly’s suggestion that CJR could be the Atlantic Monthly of journalism magazines—had a vision of a bigger, more ambitious CJR, broader in scope and influence. There were multiple redesigns and fresh starts, each costly. Editors fought with deans (I did) and deans by and large won. One editor even obtained a treaty of non-interference before he took the job.

From the beginning, the underlying strength of the Review was the community that gathered around it. In the early years, we were bolstered by a cluster of faithful stringers scattered across the country. Members of the faculty pitched in—Louis M. Starr as books editor, Larry Pinkham and Penn Kimball as writers and manuscript readers, and others as well. A stream of support came from faculty at other journalism schools. Professionals seemed to come out of nowhere, attracted by the opportunity to speak out. We were especially lucky in Washington, recruiting Ben Bagdikian to do a “letter” in each issue, a task later ably taken up by Jules Witcover.

Most of all, we benefited from the urgency of the issues of those decades; topics for stories fell into our laps—the Kennedy administration and its abrupt end, Vietnam, newspaper strikes, the civil rights movement, antiwar upheavals. Journalism’s involvement in each of these issues demanded unblinking evaluation, and by and large we found writers who could do the job.

There was static. When we made errors—and there were more than I like to remember—we were treated with deep scorn. More often, adverse reactions came from those who simply didn’t like what CJR had printed. We published letters to the editor, of course, but a standard tactic was for the offendee to go over our heads to the president. The university’s support, at least in that era, was unwavering. We got sometimes grudging acknowledgment from the various professional associations and a very cold shoulder from the American Press Institute, which in those days had its headquarters a few floors below us. Wes Gallagher, who had just become general manager of The Associated Press, raised the most serious challenge—a contention that a journalism school had no business criticizing the press, and he and the dean carried on a lively debate. Neither convinced the other.

The striking thing to me is how the basic character of the Review has persisted through earthquakes, external and internal. I still believe that I can see artifacts of the Review of my era in today’s issues. And I flatter myself that what the Review was doing in its first decades would still, I think, be recognized as the same kind of work CJR is doing now, given allowance for our quaintness of approach and false starts. We tried to grasp the essentials of what journalism is doing, tried to determine whether it is being done well or ill, how it might do better, how it is to survive and maintain its freedom in our social and political system. CJR remains a serious magazine without scholarly apparatus, aimed at generalists rather than specialists. The biggest change, of course, is the online edition of CJR, which gives the publication a timeliness and responsiveness that I could only dream of back in the 1960s.

Although there have been lapses, a lot of what the Review has published would, I hope, meet Pulitzer’s standards. In its earlier decades I think of Ben Bagdikian’s dissection of DuPont ownership of the Wilmington, Delaware, newspapers; Richard Reeves’s article on the closing of the Newark Evening News, for which CJR had to withstand a libel suit; the series developed by senior editor Jon Swan on coverage of occupational safety and health issues. These are arbitrary examples from my own experience. The important point is that there has now been a fifty-year flow, and it shows no sign of ceasing.

Having left as editor for the last time when I was in early middle age, I used to resist the notion that the magazine would be the most singular item in my obit. Now, looking at how it has flourished for all these decades, I am willing and pleased to have CJR writ next to my name. I would hope that, were he in communication, Joseph Pulitzer might assent to being linked to CJR as well, although, given the man’s temperament, he would no doubt be driving its editors crazy. 

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.